In New York, a group of illegal immigrant women pushed out of their jobs as domestic workers during the coronavirus crisis are sewing homemade face masks, giving themselves a way to earn cash to remain here.
Out west, illegal immigrants continue to be the backbone of farm work — essential workers shielded from shelter-in-place orders so they can keep food flowing to grocery stores.
Meanwhile thousands of illegal immigrant “Dreamers” here under the Obama-era DACA program are nurses, some of them even working the front lines of the fight to treat COVID-19 patients.
Coronavirus is the ultimate proving ground for illegal immigrants, they believe — a chance to show they are as American as anyone else, sharing the same experiences and just as, if not more, integral to the economy. After the shared crucible of coronavirus, they feel, the lesson should be that ousting them would be not only economically suicidal, but immoral.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom says he’s pondering how to give illegal immigrants state support, after they were left out of the federal stimulus bill. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued an executive order Tuesday allowing them to access the city’s coronavirus-related relief programs.
Some Democrats in Congress agree, and say the next big piece of legislation should give illegal immigrants access to the same coronavirus cash payments as citizens and legal workers. President Trump has said it’s “something we’re working on.”
Illegal immigrants and DACA recipients say they deserve more.
“Immigrants of all statuses are helping to stop the spread of this virus,” said Edison Suasnavas, a DACA recipient who works as a molecular oncology specialist. “Instead of ripping our families apart, the Trump Administration and Congress must act immediately to provide us, and our families, with a path to citizenship and the long-term stability we deserve.”
While not handling COVID-19 work yet, he says the testing lab is right next door to his, and he’s been told he could be roped in as the workload increases. He spoke to reporters Wednesday on a conference call organized by the National Immigration Forum.
Another part of the equation is the migrants who’ve been left jobless. The Migration Policy Institute says immigrants are overrepresented in hospitality, child care and cleaning jobs, which have been among the sectors hardest-hit by the shelter-in-place orders.
One of those is Maribel, an illegal immigrant who cleaned homes in Staten Island, until coronavirus social distancing sent New Yorkers scrambling to cancel her appointments.
She and other domestic workers are now sewing masks, using donated textiles, in a project coordinated by La Colmena, an immigrant-rights organization.
“Even though they are losing their jobs, they are not letting this crisis stop them from providing for their families,” said Yesenia Mata, executive director of La Colmena. “They know they can’t rely on the federal government for help and they are confronting this crisis with resiliency.”
Some Democrats had tried to cover illegal immigrants in the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill Congress approved last month. House Democrats also tried to automatically extend visas and work permits for guest-workers and those on temporary forgiveness programs such as DACA.
Those efforts faltered, but Democrats have signaled they’ll try again.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Massachusetts Democrat, said this week that illegal immigrants must be able to access federal coronavirus assistance. And Senate Democrats have introduced a bill to carry out the automatic work permit renewals.
Rosemary Jenks, vice president at NumbersUSA, which advocates for stricter immigration controls, Americans should be the priority for those jobs, particularly at a time when so many have been laid off and are searching for work.
“The home countries of the illegal aliens likely would much appreciate their contributions, as they all face a pandemic, too,” she said.
A reporter last week prodded Mr. Trump on whether “undocumented” immigrants deserved stimulus aid.
“How do you suppose they survive during the COVID-19?” the reporter wondered.
“You’re saying ‘undocumented,’ meaning they came in illegally,” the president told her. “And a lot of people would say we have a lot of citizens right now that won’t be working. So, what are you going to do? It’s a tough thing. It’s a very terrible — it’s a very sad question, I must be honest with you. But they came in illegally. And we have a lot of people that are citizens of our country that won’t be able to have jobs.”
Still, he added, “I’m not going to give you a hard and fast answer because I just want to tell you, it’s something I think about and it’s something we’re working on.”
If the feds don’t act, Mr. Newsom in California said he’s looking at having the state pony up to provide benefits.
“Californians care deeply about undocumented residents in this state,” he said.
Peggy Noonan, former speechwriter for President Reagan, said illegal immigrants’ response amid coronavirus should answer the complaints of many opponents of legalization, who say they need to pay fines and go through checks to prove they’ve earned the right to stay.
“Ladies and gentlemen, look around. They did,” she wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
Mark Krikorian, executive director at the Center for Immigration Studies, counters that the country doesn’t owe illegal immigrants anything.
“Most of them aren’t rapists or anything like that, but they are all trespassers,” he said.
There’s also a debate over how much of a role immigrants do play in key areas like health care.
The Center for American Progress says there are 29,000 DACA workers in health care, though Steven A. Camarota, the research director at Mr. Krikorian’s organization, says many of those are home health-care aides or other assistants, who don’t require any specialized training. He said those jobs could easily be filled by others.
CAP’s own numbers show there are only a few thousand DACA recipients who are actually registered nurses or medical technicians. In a population of about 3.3 million nurses nationwide, that means DACA migrants make up only 1 in every 1,000, Mr. Camarota said.
Mr. Krikorian said the one area where illegal immigrants do play an outsized role is farm work, where they pick fruits and vegetables that are sold fresh — as opposed to the mechanized picking for processed farm products.
“Although that makes up a relatively small portion of our caloric intake, the current crisis exposes how vulnerable that sliver of our food supply is, so once the immediate crisis passes, the government needs to make a concerted effort to wean farmers off the use of foreign labor,” he said.
He said more broadly, the coronavirus crisis shows why it’s “unwise” to have a large illegal immigrant population.
“Situations like this require all of us to pull together, and that’s a lot harder to do when so many people living here are interlopers, who either infiltrated our borders or lied about leaving when their lawful visits were over,” he said.
But he acknowledged the problem has grown too big to settle by ousting all the illegal immigrants, and there will have to be a legalization for “established illegals, provided it’s balanced.”
That means stricter enforcement such as verifying workers and ending sanctuary cities, and “deep, permanent cuts in future legal immigration, to close out this chapter of our immigration history.”